Gary doesn't know what he believes, but he's willing to give anything a try now. He doesn't know what possessed him, but yesterday, on his way to the grocer for more formula, Otis bundled in the blue denim Snugh, a soft, sure weight against his heart, he had walked into a church. It was filled with rows of pews in deep, dark woods, and brilliantly colored stained glass, and a few chipped statues of Jesus and Mary and some saints he didn't recognize. It was empty. As soon as he walked in, his feet echoed on the polished floor, and Molly had blurted into his mind like a shout. He sat in the back row, looking up at the mural on the ceiling, pastel angels filmed with gold and white cottony clouds, and then, as soon as he was settled, he realized he didn't know any prayers. Please was all he could think of to say. Oh, please. And he didn't know if that was enough, if it carried any power or weight.
Otis stirs now, his round, damp mouth moving, his hands as perfect as tiny stars you might wish upon. "Hey," Gary says, and bends and kisses his son. He can't kiss him enough. He gets drunk on the touch of him. He loves the baby's clean scent and can't help himself from sniffing Otis's neck, his round belly, his head, his hands. Gary kisses Otis once more and then checks his watch. Time to feed him, his son who was breast-fed for three days, who was held against Molly's heart, and he looks around for a waitress for another glass of hot water to warm Otis's bottle.
He knows the waitresses by now. He doesn't have to look at their name tags, shaped like clocks, with names he suspects aren't even theirs but are given to give the place a sense of atmosphere, the snap and sheen of style. Doreena. Darla. Donna. And his favorite name, his favorite waitress, a new one, Patsylu. Patsylu is tall and thin with green eye shadow and a bubble of bright bottle-blond hair tied back in a black velvet ribbon, and she has a soft spot for Otis. "Well, aren't you just the piece of blueberry pie?" she says to the baby.
Every time she glides by, she strokes back Otis's hair, and though Gary knows you aren't supposed to let anyone touch a newborn without making them wash their hands first, he hasn't the heart to criticize someone so kind to his son and to him. She brings him refills without even asking. She always smiles and she never once asks him a question, Where are you from? Who do you know here? Why did you come here? What do you want? Everything, Gary thinks. What I had, which was everything.
Tonight, Patsylu comes by with eggs. "Made them myself," she says, her voice low, soft, and sweet as music. "I even cleaned the grill so there isn't an ounce of bacon grease." He smiles up at her and thinks she would be pretty if she scrubbed her face, if she let her hair go natural. Simplification is the theme of his life now that everything is so complicated. She taps him on his arm. "You eat," she says, making it a command. "You eat that and you won't have to worry about protein for the rest of the day." She sets the plate down, a cheery bright red festooned with a flowered rim. The eggs are cooked hard into rubbery yellow buttons, the way she knows he likes them. They're freckled with coarse black pepper, sprigged with parsley, and he'll do his best to eat at least some of them, pushing the rest to the side of his plate to make it look like he did a good job, an old trick he learned way back in grade school.
He hands Patsylu Otis's bottle and lays one hand on Otis to calm him. He feels his son's steady pulse, he feels the late hour, growing later still. Already he knows that Gerta, the live-in baby nurse he's hired, will be good and pissed at him when he gets home. "You don't take a newborn out at night," she'll scold. "What's the matter with you?"
Copyright Caroline Leavitt. All rights reserved. Reproduced by the permission of the author.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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